10 Lessons From 10 Years as a Social Entrepreneur

02/25/2015 10:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Ten years ago, I shipped the world's first fair-trade avocados from small-scale farmers in Mexico to Europe -- and my social enterprise was born.

At the time, I'd never heard of a "social entrepreneur". I just wanted to use my business skills to help small-scale farmers transform their lives. Now, I identify as a social entrepreneur down to my bones, and my enterprise has scaled around the globe and impacted thousands of farmers in many countries.

Our mission is far from complete, but the anniversary is an occasion to reflect on the keys lessons learned during 10 life-changing years.

1. Be the change. Social entrepreneurship isn't just a new approach to business. It's a way of life. We won't effect meaningful change in the world around us without constantly questioning and challenging ourselves to live and be better -- every moment of every day.

2. Only do what's win-win. Self-interest is out. We must constantly see the world from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, both in our regular, day-to-day lives and in our business and development decisions, seeking not what will benefit us the most, but what will most benefit the world as a whole. To do this requires empathy -- one of a social entrepreneur's most crucial assets.

3. Have clarity about your mission and values. Having clarity about our mission and values is extraordinarily powerful. Every time we act according to our values, they become clearer within us and attract like-minded partners and new opportunities.

4. Use the market as the engine for positive change. As social entrepreneurs, it's our task to harness market forces in ways that generate positive change. To do so, we must be innovative with our business-and-development models, understanding that the best of intentions are meaningless if we can't build a sustainable and scalable structure to fulfill them.

5. Broaden your understanding of return on investment. Being a social entrepreneur means treating your entire life as an investment, and understanding the term "return" on a much deeper level; which goes way beyond the traditional monetary ROI definition. The ultimate return we're after -- in ourselves and in all our stakeholders -- is the deep satisfaction of meaningful change.

6. Surround yourself with passionate entrepreneurs and leaders. I don't hire employees; I hire entrepreneurs! And I don't appoint "managers"; I hand-pick passionate and mission-driven leaders who train and inspire new leaders in our local organizations. This creates a virtuous cycle. It is truly amazing what a group of entrepreneurial leaders with a shared mission can accomplish.

7. Aim big but be humble. From the beginning, I wanted to build an organization that would be truly global and would make this world a better place; and I still feel a constant desire to reach the next level of scale and impact. Reaching for the stars is crucial if we want to change the world. But it is also profoundly humbling as it reminds us that the world is much larger than our mission. Our world faces a myriad of massive challenges, and we need all the passionate, big-thinking, yet humble entrepreneurs we can get.

8. Our movement is important. Over the last decade, I've come to understand the social entrepreneurship movement from many different angles and repetitively realized how remarkable and important it is. We are connecting new dots that no one else is connecting, responding to urgent needs in creative ways and building a world that's more equitable, transparent, connected and inspiring. Let's join forces with each other, while constantly breaking down old silos and stubborn structures to collaborate across different sectors, public and private.

9. There will be failures and crises. Success depends on how you meet them. I've launched new ventures that failed miserably, been wracked by self-doubt, had would-be partners betray me and been through some of the darkest moments of my life. In every case, it was the inner clarity of my mission that helped me decide what to do and gave me the strength to make the right decision. Without fail, my crises turned into opportunities that led to growth. That's because life wants us to grow, and continually presents us with new challenges that help us live up to our responsibility vis-à-vis ourselves and our world.

10. It is worth it. I left my corporate career with a vague but powerful intuition that a more meaningful and satisfying life was possible. Today, 10 years later, my life continues to be full of hard work, long days and difficult decisions. But in having a clear mission, a passionate team that shares it with me and the knowledge that we're creating real change in the world, I feel an immense sense of purpose and satisfaction on a daily basis -- and a desire for more.

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